Democrats Registering In Record Numbers

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- They lined up shoulder to shoulder inside the gray high-rise downtown, their politics as diverse as their backgrounds. An ex-felon who needs health insurance, followed by a high school student seeking empowerment, followed by a Marine Corps veteran who wants to prevent his country from crumbling.

Like hundreds of others, their quests led them to the Wake County voter services office this month to register as Democrats for the first time. The line of newcomers that snaked across the checkered tile floor was emblematic of those that have formed across the country this year: black voters, young voters, lifelong Republicans switching parties -- all registering in record numbers, and all aligning as Democrats.

Elections Director Cherie Poucher waited for them behind a counter with a jar of pens and a 10-inch stack of registration forms. She had hired 10 people from a temp agency to help handle the rush on this final day of North Carolina voter registration. Now, as she watched four more people file through the door, Poucher wished she had hired more.

"In 20 years," she said, "I've never seen anything quite like it."

The past seven states to hold primaries registered more than 1 million new Democratic voters; Republican numbers mainly ebbed or stagnated. North Carolina and Indiana, which will hold their presidential primaries on May 6, are reporting a swell of new Democrats that triples the surge in registrations before the 2004 primary.

The contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama has engaged enough new voters to change the political makeup of the country, experts say. The next several months -- and the general election in November -- will reveal the extent of the shift. Is it a temporary increase in interest resulting from a close election between historic candidates? Or is it a seismic swing in party realignment that foretells the end of the red-blue stalemate?

"We are likely to set an all-time record for primary turnout," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "Whether this makes a major historical impact depends on who these voters are and whether or not they get what they want."

'I Want to Vote'

Jason Robertson, 29, walked through the voter services door a few minutes after 2 p.m., wearing a stained, long-sleeve T-shirt and a black winter cap. He had extended his lunch break to come here, and he needed to be back at work in an hour. He makes brochures in a small printing shop in a warehouse off the highway. It's a good job, and he intends to keep it.

Work had become hard to find after he picked up a felony drug charge five years ago. His cousin found him the gig at the printing shop, but it can offer him only 30 hours of work each week. Robertson dreams of opening his own shop, or applying for one of those cushy jobs printing for the state. "It's crazy," he said. "They're paying, like, $15 an hour."

Robertson always thought the felony charge disqualified him from voting, until his girlfriend picked up a registration form last month at a hair salon and read the fine print (ex-felons may vote in North Carolina if they complete all terms of their sentence, such as probation or parole). She brought it home to the two-bedroom apartment they share with their four children and told him to fill it out.

"You're always talking about wanting change," Kim Fowler told him. "Now you can help make it."

Fowler, a longtime voter, met Robertson at a post office four years ago, and her interest in politics rubbed off on him. She took him to see "Fahrenheit 9/11," and volunteered at Obama's local office. More cynical than hopeful, Robertson wasn't the volunteering type. "George Bush cheated in both elections, and Congress should all be thrown out," he said. But lately he felt compelled by a new sense of political urgency.

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